The Minnesota Timberwolves are in a tough spot.
Over the remaining 21 games of the season, Minnesota has to walk the perfect tightrope between playing well enough to instill confidence in a fanbase that lost faith in the franchise long ago and tanking just enough to give themselves the best chance to keep their top-three protected draft pick.
After beating the Sacramento Kings on Monday, the Wolves improved their overall record to 13-38, which is still the worst record in the NBA. But just barely.
Currently, Minnesota sits a half-game behind the reeling Houston Rockets (13-37) in the Western Conference standings. Including the Wolves and Rockets, there are at least seven teams that are in contention for one of the coveted bottom-three spots that come with the best odds at acquiring the top overall pick in the draft. The Pistons, Magic, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Thunder are all within five games of the third spot and are at some level actively tanking. (For instance, the Magic are definitely tanking).
The Wolves are in a precarious position after sending a top-three protected first-round draft pick to Golden State as part of the Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell trade last February. Even if the worst team all season stays in the bottom three, Minnesota will only have a 40.1 percent chance of keeping the pick.
If the Wolves end the season with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, their odds of keeping the pick drop to 36.6 percent, then 31.6, 27.6, and 21.4 percent for a finish between No. 5 and No. 7, respectively.
The good news for beleaguered Timberwolves fans is that the schedule is brutal the rest of the way.
Of the 21 games remaining on the schedule, Minnesota plays 12 games against teams with a winning record and just six games against teams that are currently out of range of the play-in tournament. The Wolves have the eighth-hardest schedule remaining according to Tankathon. Of the teams in the mix for the top positions in the NBA lottery, only the Rockets have a tougher schedule.
The grueling schedule gives Chris Finch and the Wolves the perfect opportunity to show vast improvements down the stretch, with no expectations to win games that would jeopardize their already precarious draft position.
D’Angelo Russell finally returned from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for 26 games. The 25-year-old former All-Star was a key cog in the win over the Kings, contributing 25 points in just 24 minutes, and was a +8 coming off the bench.
In just his sixth game taking the court alongside his longtime friend Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell helped show what this team can do when it has its full complement of players — although we found out on Monday that Malik Beasley will now be out for four to six weeks.
Since Chris Finch took over the team in February, the Wolves are 6-14. That record improves to a nearly respectable 6-9 after the All-Star break, when Finch was able to take a beat to install his own system.
Since that time, Minnesota’s offense ranks 14th in the league, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions, and the team holds a -3.7 net rating, which is 22nd in the NBA during that span.
Towns is finally starting to resemble his former All-Pro self. Anthony Edwards is making a strong case to be the Rookie of the Year. And Russell provides extra firepower on the offensive end to open things up in the lane for Towns and Edwards to get easy buckets.
Even with Beasley out for what might as well be the rest of the season, It will be important to see what the Wolves’ core can do down the stretch to hopefully ease fans’ nightmares about the future.
Let’s say Russell, Towns, and Edwards can shock the world and lead Minnesota to an 11-10 record the rest of the way. They would finish 24-48 on the season, flying by Houston, Detroit, Orlando, and Washington in the standings, and end up with a 31.6 percent chance to keep their pick.
Is playing .500 ball for a fourth of a season worth the 8.5 percent worse chance of keeping their first-round pick? Is it important enough to see that Minnesota could perhaps be in the running to make the play-in tournament while jeopardizing a chance at selecting a possible future star in Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, or Evan Mobley?
The best-case scenario for the remainder of the season is seeing that the D’Lo and KAT pairing clearly works well enough to build around them, Edwards continues to flash superstar potential, Minnesota plays the good teams close but still loses while beating the bad teams left on the schedule.
Something like 7-14 the rest of the way ending the season with a clean 20 wins, and pushing ahead of the Rockets and Pistons in the standings while claiming the third-worst record in the NBA, and keeping the best odds to keep the pick seems like the best of both worlds for the Timberwolves.
It’s a tanking tightrope that Minnesota has to walk the rest of the season, but being so bad for the first three-quarters of the year makes it just a bit more manageable.
Who said Wolves fans can’t have their cake and eat it too?